Jie Liu, a student enrolled in this semester’s ENG 5998 reading group, reflects on some of the readings provided by Professor Yancey for our upcoming discussion on Evaluating Convergence Culture:
When talking about convergence culture, Henry Jenkins interestingly redefines the key term “convergence” and reveals its complexity. Deviating from its dominant connotation, what he celebrates is plurality and practice. Not unaware of the possible problems of this convergence, he remains optimistic and believes that it will go beyond popular culture and play a more important role in different areas if we look at the future. And all these ideas are based on his understanding of convergence as a process.
“Ironically,” in his review Aram Sinnreich states that Jenkins’s book on convergence, though engaging and illuminating, “offers a maddeningly divergent range of ideas, arguments and anecdotes” but lacks “the connective tissue” (44). Here “strangely” convergence no longer refers to “the utopian dream that today’s chaotic and often redundant array of communication technologies will someday coalesce into an elegant and all-encompassing singularity, a monolithic medium for every kind of message” (44), which Jenkins views as the black box fallacy. Jenkins’s definition may not seem satisfying to some readers, but he turns this term into an effective lens that can help us examine what is happening.
This is not unlike what Patrick Svensson does in “Beyond the Big Tent,” defining the digital humanities as “a Trading Zone and Meeting Place.” He feels that even the “big tent,” the term used by the Digital Humanities 2011 conference, should be “larger.” Both Jenkins and Svensson respond to current challenges and historical contexts. More than once, Jenkins talks about transition (e.g. “we are in an age of media transition” (11)). At a stage of uncertainties, as the title of his book shows (“Where old media and new media collide”), when we still need to figure out where new media is going, a fluid term embracing different ideas and viewpoints can help us explore more possibilities and achieve real convergence at last. “Keep this in mind,” Jenkins tells us, “convergence refers to a process, not an endpoint” (16). He understands that new media is still evolving, and while things are not static, his “convergence” may better serve our purposes. Like “a Trading Zone and Meeting Place,” this “convergence” brings various media platforms, media industries, producers, and consumers together and does not exclude scholars from different disciplines.
So it is understandable that Jenkins’s convergence supports plurality: “By convergence, I mean the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want.” (Jenkins 2) Though he pays close attention to consumers who become active participants, his case studies analyze convergence from different perspectives. Singularity does not work because there are “different models of convergence” (7), and no wonder Jenkins sees convergence as “a top-down corporate-driven process and a bottom-up consumer-driven process” (18). Considering the current stage, Jenkins points out that “convergence will be a kind of kludge…rather than a fully integrated system” (17).
On the other hand, it is cultural practices (or protocols), not technologies, that Jenkens’s convergence centers on. Viewing media as “cultural systems” (14), he focuses on the interaction and tension between industries and audiences as well as how we produce and consume media. Hence how to use technologies becomes the central question. This emphasis is echoed by more recent applications of technologies. During the 2010 Haiti earthquake, digital volunteers stepped forward and saved lives by using simple digital tools. Patrick Meier, who told their stories in Digital Humanitarians, also stresses “the importance of developing innovative policies and not just innovative technologies.” In a disaster like this, coordination and management (protocols) seem more important than the flood of information (Big Data).
Meier’s stories about those digital humanitarians also support Jenkins’s faith in the power of convergence culture. Jenkins believes that convergence as cultural practices changes our relationships with media and will have a profound impact on the society while popular culture is only the first stop. He values the skills people learn through play and finally moves to politics (the 2004 American presidential campaign). Meier’s Digital Humanitarians shows that we can go further. Consumers’ participation has started with entertainment and extended to crisis, which implies more possibilities. With all the uncertainties of this information age, our understanding and vision of how to use technologies become critical.
However, seeing convergence as a process, Jenkins is not unaware of its problems, and it seems that six years after his book was published, new questions have also emerged. Jenkins realizes the difficulties for media industries to work together because of their different production modes and time spans (9). And considering copyright laws and media ownership, how far can transmedia practices go? How much freedom do consumers as active participants have? His case study on children who had to fight for writing stories about Harry Potter implies limitations. But things become more complex when there are not only consumers and producers, but also “aggregators.” How should we see companies in the virality industry like Spartz, Inc, which does not focus on generating content but the innovative ways “it is promoted and packaged” (Marantz)? Emerson Spartz has little interest in original content but is passionate about identifying patterns that make the content impactful. Here copyright remains an issue because the viral sites “don’t pay for licensing” (Marantz).
Another thing noteworthy is it is all about catching people’s attention and business. Aram actually points out Jenkins’s “apprehension about the consequences of commodification” (46) as a result of audience agency. While viral sites encourage users jump from one post to another to get the information they want, such participation does not lead to many meaningful activities. And considering personalization, this model of participation will inevitably weaken, not strengthen, audience agency. As Spartz mentions, in the future “you shouldn’t have to choose what you want, because we will be able to get enough data to know what you want better than you do” (Marantz).
This may make us ask what is real participation, or to what extent participation is promising, but another question is to what extent people participate. An expert in fan culture, Jenkins primarily discusses fans of popular movies and TV shows, groups of enthusiasts who undoubtedly are willing to participate. But during the same period Charles Arthur also found the 1% rule: “if you get a group of 100 people online then one will create content, 10 will ‘interact’ with it (commenting or offering improvements) and the other 89 will just view it.” YouTube’s “creator to consumer” ratio is 0.5% (Mayfield qtd. in Arthur) while “50% of all Wikipedia article edits are done by 0.7% of users” (the Church of the Customer qtd. in Arthur). There is probably an increasing number of participants, but the statistics may help us better understand convergence as a process. Considering the media transition, it is likely that old media still has an impact on users’ cultural practices. In certain ways many users may tend to consume new media according to old protocols. Then it is not surprising to see the popularity of Snapchat, which, unlike other digital platforms, only allows its users to see the images they receive for no more than 10 seconds, reflecting a nostalgia for old fashion.
Henry Jenkins. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. NYUP, 2006.
Adam Sinnreich. Review of Jenkins’ book. International Journal of Communication, 2007.
Patrick Svensson. “Beyond the Big Tent.” Matthew Gold, ed. Debates in the Digital Humanities, 2013 open-access edition.
Patrick Meier. Digital Humanitarians. Francis & Taylor, 2015.
Andrew Marantz. “The Virologist.” The New Yorker, Jan. 5, 2015.
Charles Arthur. “What is the 1% rule?” The Guardian, July 19, 2006.